METAIRIE, La. – Saints linebacker Scott Shanle contends that familiarity breeds a better run defense.
Based on New Orleans' season-opening performance against Minnesota and star running back Adrian Peterson, Shanle might be on to something. Another test comes Monday night at San Francisco, where the Saints will try to contain Frank Gore.
"When you look at the personnel we had coming back, we have a better understanding of what we're doing in this defense," Shanle said. "What you're seeing over the past year is a growing knowledge of where we're supposed to be."
Now in their second season under defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, and with most regulars back from last season, the Saints expect to have more success slowing down the NFL's top rushers than they had last year. New Orleans ranked 21st in rushing defense in 2009, allowing 122 yards per game.
The Saints opened the season with eight returning starters on defense. Two of the new starters, linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar and safety Malcolm Jenkins, were with the team last year. Only defensive end Alex Brown is new.
Peterson — who ran for 1,383 yards during the 2009 regular season and had 122 yards and three touchdowns against the Saints in the NFC title game — was held to 87 yards and no scores in New Orleans' Week 1 14-9 win.
That encouraged Saints coach Sean Payton, who described himself as "anxious" to see how New Orleans front seven would respond not only to the loss of veteran linebacker Scott Fujita in free agency, but also the recent season-ending foot injury to expected starting linebacker Jonathan Casillas.
"You're anxious to play that first game to see where you're at in a lot of areas ... specifically, how were we going to hold up against the run," Payton said.
It was "a good test if you see a team like Minnesota and Adrian Peterson that rushes the ball so well and this week will be another one," the coach continued. "We're seeing yet another elite running back. Those are big challenges, especially on the road where we're going to have to tackle well. I thought we tackled very well last week. Here we are again and we're going to get a very good test."
Shanle wonders whether the Saints' defensive front is in for a bigger challenge at San Francisco than it faced against Minnesota. The Vikings, Shanle said, gave quarterback Brett Favre more opportunities to throw after the Saints had some early success slowing Peterson.
"(The 49ers are) more consistent running the ball," Shanle said. "Any time you have a guy like Brett Favre at quarterback, if the run maybe doesn't work one or two plays, you're more likely to try to do something in the air. But San Fran has been a team that has made their money running the ball. Especially after (losing) last week, they want to come out and establish who they are. And their identity is being physical and trying to run the ball."
Last season, Gore averaged nearly 5 yards per carry, finishing with 1,120 yards rushing. His longest run went for an 80-yard touchdown. The Saints, meanwhile, gave up their share of long runs in 2009. New Orleans yielded 11 rushes of 20 yards or more, including runs of 66, 67 and 68 yards.
The longest run the Saints allowed against Minnesota last week was a 14-yarder by Peterson.
"Last year I just think it was just a lot of misfits. It was miscommunication on those long runs," Saints defensive tackle Remi Ayodele said. "It wasn't that we were just getting dominated on the front. So what we've been working on this whole offseason is being on the same page."
Saints defensive players would like to believe their run-stuffing performance against Minnesota was the beginning of a season-long trend, but said they know better than to get too comfortable after one solid performance.
"That was just one game," Ayodele said. "It was easy to be up for last week. It was the opening game, everybody's watching you and you got something to prove. This is a real test coming up, being on the road on Monday night."
NOTES: LB Anthony Waters (hamstring) hasn't practiced since the game against Minnesota. Also missing practice were reserve LT Zach Strief (right knee) and RB Chris Ivory (left knee). ... The Saints said the team's Gulf Coast Renewal Fund has donated $500,000 to local charities responding to the BP oil spill.